Return to Articles / Essays

Archival Anecdotes

Published in Canadian Notes and Queries, Number 96.


I have written a fair bit on some of the things I have seen – and how these things have affected me – during the many appraisals I have conducted over many years.

I frequently state that my professional integrity demands that I do not reveal private details just as lawyers or doctors can’t reveal details of their clients. But there have always been anecdotal revelations which I can use to illustrate things of interest, that do not in any way intrude on people’s privacy. Even though many of the archives I have dealt with are in no way restricted I still often disguise and change details to not identify people.

Sometimes I can be helpful to the donor by properly recognizing what I see.

In a recent appraisal of a huge archive covering sixty years of a well-known writer’s career I came on certain documents from over forty years ago which I guessed the donor would not remember were there, and which I was pretty sure he would not want exposed to the curious eyes of strangers. In case he was unaware they were in his unrestricted archive, I got in touch with him after the appraisal and suggested that he might want to protect his privacy. He did. And he thanked me, as he restricted that portion of his files until 2035, when we’ll all be safely dead.

No law demands that the donor cannot know that I am the person who appraised their archive. I am fully protected by the fact that I am always working at arms-length. The recipient institution hires me, I work for them, so I need not fear pressure nor attempts to influence me from the donor. I suppose some donor could attempt to bribe me but so far none has and only twice in over forty years has any donor attempted to influence me before the appraisal. Indeed my partner Debbie likes to joke that she’s been anxiously waiting for over twenty-five years for someone to offer to corrupt her – to which she would happily agree, she says – but no one cares enough to even try.

I’ve had donors who wanted to take me to lunch beforehand to explain the significance of their material. I always refuse, countering with my usual statement that if I needed help assessing importance I shouldn’t be hired in the first place. Curiously, I have never yet had one of those same donors ask me out to dinner afterwards to explain their appreciation for my work and the value I assigned.

Soon I will have my first experience of appraising where I will gratefully accept the help offered by a third party. And curiously it will be a family member of the principal. Usually I would bluntly refuse, but on this one I will gratefully accept the help offered by this third party, for the man who created the archive was, to my mind, one of our greatest 20th century thinkers. But he wrote a very obscure cryptic hand. I will be dealing with notes and unfinished ideas which could be extremely important and I must be in a position to understand what I’m seeing. My consultant, the author’s son, has offered this help for he spent a good part of his life working with his father and is familiar with many things which could easily confound me.

I often have a session, previous to going to work, with the archivist who put the archive in order. For the intense labour an archivist must expend to arrange the papers in proper order will necessarily educate them to the importance of the archive.

So the archivist and I work together to ensure the best view of the principal’s career.

This is a far cry from a donor telling me how important they are and why. I welcome the professional liaison with the archivist, while I always refuse the donor’s offer of assistance. But I can, and often do, consult with donors during the appraisal, when I come on things which I don’t fully understand, or where I am a bit confused about possible significance which sometimes is only hinted at.

I’m allowed to do this for what the law demands is fairness to the donor, and the recipient institution, which, since almost every institution I work for is a public institution, means the people of Canada, us. The Government only oversees these appraisals to ensure that the ever-present scam artists are discouraged.

My client institutions know that I am prepared to discuss my appraisals with the donor and that they are free to divulge my identity to the donor. So that disgruntled donors may discuss their dissatisfaction with the source of their dissatisfaction. I think my client institutions like this too, for it means they can shift the incensed donor, who feels that the cultural significance of their donation has been misunderstood – onto me. That’s okay with me, that’s part of the service I provide. So I have had a lot of conversations with public figures over their archives, some of them amusing, some of them rather distasteful.

But over the years I have relaxed my stringent rules a bit to use some of the sometimes amazing things I’ve seen for my own purposes; after all, these archives are donated with the idea that scholars will want to use them. Once they are donated all unrestricted portions are in the public domain.

The first time I appraise the papers of a writer, I usually find the early background most interesting, for in the youth and formative years one sees the character emerging and we then have the often fascinating experience of seeing the evolution of a serious important writer whose youth often gave little or no clues to that evolution.

When I appraised the first donation of the novelist Susan Swan I discovered a thick bundle of letters, her entire correspondence with her schoolmates at the private girls’ school she attended, Havergal College. As I’ve said elsewhere it was often years before I realized what would remain indelible in my memory from an appraisal and this anecdote of Swan’s archive illustrates this perfectly. Why would one ever consider that letters of young girls to their school friends could ever have larger significance? But these ones did.

I’m glad I didn’t just dismiss them as mere illustrations of the juvenile manner of thinking. In fact, they illustrated a very important transition – when young girls are entering womanhood.

Swan’s school friends would have been in their early teenage years, and Swan, being in my age range, I was looking at letters from girls who would have been around my own age then. Not surprising, most of them had huge sections relating to those young ladies’ central preoccupations at that age – boys. So I took a while to look through them. I was shocked. Not shocked that these respectable young ladies were obsessed with boys – after all, I and my pals were equally obsessed with girls and all the recently discovered possibilities that go with that stage in life. No, what was shocking were their attitudes. Young men (boys, really) were discussed as objects, as types, even. And worse, as mere creatures to be used, to be exploited. It was apparent that we boys were not individuals with personalities to be treated as people – we existed for one reason only, to provide comfort and security, and on a very secondary level, pleasure, to these young women. It should be understood that in the period I speak of such pleasure was seriously platonic. These were the days when “making it” usually meant maybe getting your hand under a sweater but still only over the brassiere, in the back seat of a car. Other liberties, like a bare breast, were dreamt of, but never seriously expected. Most of the phrases me and my pals used to describe our common physical discomfort with such a state of frustration I haven’t even heard used in over fifty years. But it was still a shock to discover that we were viewed as objects, mere objects. I was horrified and grossly offended even fifty years afterwards.

One girl’s ten-page letter explained at great length that all those girls needed at least three or four young guys for varying situations. First was one to simply have as a sort of protection, to serve as a defense, to accompany her in places she couldn’t comfortably go alone. Another would be used for formal public occasions when respectability was necessary. Boring boys who were presentable and obviously smitten by the girls were the most useful for that function. And then there were the ones the young women wasn’t really interested in, but who were useful because they were considered desirable by other girls. So, these ones were used to frustrate other girls, to instill envy in the girls who didn’t have them.

And then there were the “bad boys,” fascinating but dangerous; the lure there was the fascination of the hint of danger. Nice fun for the girl who was protected by her respectability. I was horrified to find that these ethereal, angelic beauties who we worshipped from afar were actually calculating connivers and that we guys were mere objects, to be exploited without mercy.

The only small compensation I received from this shocking revelation was from the many school pictures in that part of the archive. I had the pleasure of recognizing two old, dear friends of mine, who also went to that same school at that time. One of them, now an eminent professor, a writer and an editor, afforded me an enormous amount of fun. For seated in the front row in the class pictures she is so young that she has forgotten to be lady-like in the proper manner by keeping her knees firmly together. Nothing is revealed but I did get a couple of years of amusement by regularly pointing out to her what a waste of her father’s money she had obviously caused. This expensive school hadn’t yet taught her that respectable young ladies are meant to always keep their knees together. She is always appropriately embarrassed when I bring it up in company. Incidentally, the way to tell when you have embarrassed a lady friend is when she waits ten minutes and then obliquely attacks you for some quite different sin you have apparently committed.

At a Harbourfront cocktail party some time after that appraisal I recognized Swann. She is so tall that usually, half a head above the rest of the crowd, she is easily seen in a crowd. She was with her partner Patrick Crean, the publisher, and a couple of women whose identity I can’t remember. Maybe that’s where I met her daughter or maybe it was Pat Grosskurth who I know was at that same party because she introduced Debbie and I to the friend who was accompanying her, who turned out to be Ruth Rendell, one of Debbie’s – and my – favorite writers. A woman we would not in a million years ever have thought could be the writer who created all those incredible psychological thrillers that Rendell writes, for she looked like your average middle class, middle-aged housewife (never judge a writer by their cover, as the man said).

I was still mulling those letters over in my mind and remained impressed by all the revelations that the letters had accorded me. And by now, certain that Swann wouldn’t have looked at them for forty years or more and would be completely unaware of the depth of the psychology of young women that they revealed, I couldn’t resist. I approached their group, dragging Debbie along and introduced myself. I had not then met either Swan or Crean.

When I said who I was, Swan was very cordial, a sign that she appreciated my assessment of her value, a pleasure I shared. Such an appraisal necessarily reflects my view of the archive’s literary significance, so in that sense my assessment of value is a compliment.

After introductions I informed Swan that I believed she had the core of a book in that packet of letters, saying I guessed she wouldn’t have thought of them as material. And she hadn’t. I then recounted my shock at what I had discovered, about how those young women viewed us. I walked right into it there.

“Yes,” I said a bit hurt, “you girls saw us only as inferior creatures to be used like social accoutrements.” I continued, “You just wanted to use us. It was hard enough dealing with the terrors of young women as it was. We would all have been devastated had we’d known what you really thought of us.”

“Yes,” said Swan, calmly, looking right at me. “And we still do.”

A perfect one-liner. The response was a roar of laughter from all the women, even mine, delighted by such an appropriate put-down.

Even Patrick Crean and I, the pitiable victims, the butt of their feminine amusement, had to laugh. We were properly being relegated to our lowly status. For it was indeed a perfect put-down, worthy of the greatest standup comics putting down a heckler.

I went home and began reading Swan’s books.


-David Mason

Quick Search


News & Announcements


NEW! Furnishings Now Available 
Click above for photos and details.


Books on Sale Online! 
Click above for a listing of our sale books.


Our Store Saleroom is now open! 
Click above for details.


Drama and Theatre Catalogue now online! 
Our latest catalogue is now available in PDF format.


The Pope's Bookbinder available. 
David Mason's memoir of the book business in Toronto can be purchased here.



Instagram